Reading the Absences in Ramseyer’s “Comfort Women” Provocation

A new publication on Japan’s wartime system of military prostitution (‘Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,’ International Review of Law and Economics [December 2020]) has generated a whirlwind of controversy. Written by J. Mark Ramseyer, a senior professor at Harvard Law School, the article makes specific historical claims, employs historical evidence to support those claims, and is potentially significant insofar as the process of repudiating it leads to a certain consciousness and creates some new linkages. Is there anything to this article? 

Since we in my Modern Japan module here at the University of Leeds are meant to cover the “comfort women” controversy in about six weeks anyway, I made a quick adjustment to my syllabus and assigned Ramseyer’s article for discussion this week instead. Since a recent editorial in the Daily Telegraph was so much in my mind, I refrained from hypothesizing that the article was an act of high-level academic trolling, essentially intended to provoke a wide backlash while cementing the author’s credentials with his sponsors or unique support group. But these students are getting ready to write dissertations next year and a basic reminder about academic protocols and ethics is never badly timed. (For the same reason, in every academic year since 2016-17, I have assigned B.R. Myers’ exposure of Charles Armstrong’s plagiarism in Tyranny of the Weak for reading and discussion with my Korean War seminar students in Leeds.)   

A reader unaware of the massive media coverage of Ramseyer’s article might form an initial impression that it looks like a piece of scholarship. After all, the journal is peer-reviewed, that the author appears to be fluent in Japanese and is a senior professor at Harvard Law School. And the article certainly appears to be densely cited, and it is full of primary documents. 

No sooner had I concluded my class discussions on 18 February 2021 than Harvard University historians Carter Eckert and Andrew Gordon produced a three-page criticism of the article, focusing almost exclusively on the author’s approach to contracts, documents which are presumed to have existed, but which are not cited or proven. They also took Ramseyer to task for using “citations that are wholly unrelated to claims made in the text, [making] claims in the text of the article entirely at odds with the documents cited to support those claims, [and making] selective use of documents and other materials to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary.”

Eckert and Gordon did not raise specific survivor testimonies as a form of response, but pointed the way toward a second document to be released later that day. In a comprehensive rebuttal of dozens of the article’s data points and interpretations also published on 18 February 2021, Northwestern University’s Amy Stanley and a group of colleagues produced an impressive 33-page document which emerged just as I was concluding this essay.

Briefer criticisms include the article’s lack of engagement with testimonies from former “comfort women” which would contradict its claims, the assumption that consent is not a legitimate problem in the study of the “comfort women,” and the assumption of absolute equality of economic relations between the Korean women and Japanese managers.

The article demonstrates a blindness to the wartime environment as impactful. In this last sense, the article follows a major trend in combined civil society and governmental attempts from Japan to depict the Koreans as fairly-compensated prostitutes living in good conditions. An example of selective reading can be seen in one very prevalent document from Burma, which is often brandished as absolute vindication by revisionists when in fact the body of it discusses women hiding in foxholes during bombardments. Ramseyer’s article completely avoids problems of the wartime environment. One final angle which has not been much explored in public commentary, but which is worth discussing further, is the article’s ultimate reinforcement of Japan’s image as old, male-dominated, unrepentant, and sexist.

This essay seeks to supplement the Eckert and Gordon essay, and will therefore avoid the question of contracts, which has been covered there. It will also avoid rehashing territory covered in Stanley, et. al. Instead this essay seeks to illuminate aspects of Ramseyer’s primary documents, and how they are selectively read (fair enough), misleadingly cited (not good) and ultimately misused (very bad). This is done less with my colleagues in mind than my students, but it is hoped that the essay will be useful for both groups. Given that Japanese is not my primary research language, I would of course welcome any critiques of things I may have overlooked in the evidence discussed, and I may publish an updated and revised version of this essay on next week.

Problem 1: Overreliance on, and presentation of, two collections of primary sources

As the reader goes through the article or skims the bibliography, it appears that the author has uncovered a large number of Japanese studies of conditions for sex workers dating from the early 1930s. These primary sources cited them in the inline text as if they are original research. 

However, with further digging we find on the references page that virtually none of the primary documents are original discoveries by Ramseyer, but instead drawn from one published collection of primary documents. 

One is reminded here of Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review of Anne Applebaum:

The book has one odd quirk, namely its citation practice. As far as I can see, Applebaum has not worked in archives for this book… Her footnotes are bulging with archival citations, however, because every time she quotes something from a secondary source that has an archival reference, she gives that as well – and then lists all these archives among the primary sources in her bibliography. This is not normal scholarly practice, though graduate students sometimes do it for effect before they learn better.

So it isn’t precisely unethical, but it does make the research look more original than it actually is, and the author provides no context about the collection from which he is drawing. 

Paradoxically, the main collection of sources from which Ramseyer draws was edited by Suzuki Yoko [鈴木裕子], pictured here. 

Suzuki is an important feminist scholar in Japan who has been vocal for the past 20 years in her support of precisely the ideas being criticised by Remseyer. Presumably, Suzuki and her fellow editors disagree with conclusions drawn in this paper; one could gather as much from her publications. 

A second collection of documents cited frequently in the paper is “Josei 1997”, which is a five volume collection of primary documents compiled and published via the Asian Women’s Fund. Readers interested in the full collection can consult and download the eighth entry on this list and find the five large pdfs appended to that entry. I’ll give further specific examples below about how the author has misused this particular resource. Again, one gets the impression of citation padding and the desire to appear original when in fact the work of discovery has been done elsewhere. 

Problem 2: The lack of engagement with secondary literature / historiography

A large percentage of the article’s citations are drawn from the two edited collections above. I plan to put together a graph like this for the article, which requires crawling through the whole article again and tallying up every single reference. But [and] it can help to visualize or render mathematically visible a reliance on a single group of sources.

The author cites precisely two English-language pieces of scholarship. One is a monograph which is focused not on comfort women at all, but instead on the functionality of the Japanese state in the 1930s and 40s. It happens to have been written by a co-author of Ramseyer’s. The other is an article which Ramseyer himself published in 1991. How did this make it through peer review again? Writes Dr. Mark Peterson in the Korea Times:

The reviewers may have given a free pass to the professor because he is a Harvard professor? Surely, a man of solid reputation would not submit an article that wasn’t researched well! But therein lies another problem ― the research looks like good law school research. On the surface. 

Perhaps the question of engaging the existing literature was answered by “I’ve engaged with Japanese-language scholarship.” But even there it’s on fairly thin ground. Most of the citations are of four articles by a single scholar, Fujinaga Takeshi [藤永 壮], a historically-oriented researcher from a “Faculty of Human Environment” in Osaka (homepage here). 

This minimal citation of existing scholarship has been noted by others. Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut (pictured above) makes a cutting and accurate point about the relationship of Ramsyer’s to the current body of scholarship in either English or Japanese:

There has been so much scholarship produced in the 30 years since the first survivor came forward and it’s almost as if Professor Ramseyer’s decision is to just ignore all of the debate — as if he’s the first person to come into this — and give a withering condemnation of all opinions different from his as lies. To say, ‘well, the Koreans were in it for the money’ — which for me would be the tagline for what the Ramseyer article is saying — is just a dog whistle to a political ideology in Japan that is powerful. So many who would drag us back to the 1990s are standing up, saying a Harvard professor said, ‘This is all a lie. These are prostitutes and they made money and they could go home if they wanted to.’ That’s not scholarship.

Dudden has put together an excellent essay of her own (which gets immediately at the trolling and disinformation elements to the article) and further published new work by Tessa Morris-Suzuki on the matter at Japan Focus.

Problem 3.There is no discussion of Korean compensation lawsuits, when in fact the article is intended to serve as an implement in precisely those debates.

Although a good chunk of the primary evidence behind the article appears to have been collected and published by the Asian Women’s Fund, the author does not get into the lawsuits around the compensation issues. Nor is there any discussion of how his research might be relevant to the 2015 agreement between the South Korea government and the Japanese government.  

The legal scholar might quibble that with China, one could argue that there was a war of aggression by Japan, and the Tokyo Trials agreed as much, but Korea presented a different case. In short, the argument goes that because Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and because the Republic of Korea signed away rights to future reparations with normalization treaty with Japan in 1965, that all right to compensation for forced labour or underpaid labour in very difficult jobs. 

This is an area where Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi are continually being sued by the Korean and Chinese plaintiffs (as seen below). So to say that this battle plays out in the court of public opinion and mass sentiment is also true. This is not some neutral theoretical playing ground, and Ramseyer very quickly calls Korea “part of the Japanese nation after all in 1910” in his second paragraph.

No postwar Japanese defendents were tried (much less sentenced or executed) for the system of military prostitution, but sexual violence against women did play an evidentiary role in the prosecution of some, including Matsui Iwane and the Nanking Massacre. 

Problem 4. Insufficient context given for primary documents cited

Rather than comprehensively investigate the article’s underlying data, I simply want to look deeper at two sources cited in the paper. Both (within footnote 7 of the paper) of these sources are used to support a claim that the “comfort stations” were in fact operated to a high hygienic standard.

The first is listed as “Gunsei kanbu bisaya shibu [Philippines]: 1942. Ianjo kitei sofu no ken [Regarding transmittal of Comfort Station Regulations]. Nov. 22, 1942, reprinted in Josei (1997: 3-187).” 

Since this collection of documents is available online thanks to the Asian Women’s Fund, let’s take a look. 

For some reason Ramseyer shortens the citation and does not provide the specific location of the report, which is in the title. Interestingly, it is a report from the Japanese-occupied Philippines and the city of Iloilo City [map, marked also below], on the island of Panay. 

Iloilo is an important port city but also very far from the capitol of Manila. What was the Japanese military doing there? And what were living conditions like? Do we have accounts from “comfort women” in that city, in addition to Japanese military documents like the above? 

The city had been occupied by Japanese forces in April 1942, and was recaptured by the US on 21 March 1945. A US military newsreel from the period informs us that Ioilio was the only urban area held by the Japanese on the island of Panay. The city was surrounded by some 20,000 guerrillas. MacArthur reported that 70% of the city was destroyed by the time the American 8th Army, led by General Eichelberger, entered the city. Lindesay Parrott, a New York Times reporter in the Philippines at the time, described the smoke plumes over the final days of Japanese-occupied Ilolio as the Americans approached the outskirts of the city (NYT, 21 March 1945).  

During the three plus years of Japanese occupation of Iloilo, there had been an alternative governance on Panay to the Japanese empire beyond the pillboxes that surrounded the city, an opposition led by the Catholic politician Tomas Confesor and supplied by the U.S. In December 1943, a group of American missionaries aiding anti-Japanese guerillas had been massacred on the island, including a 9-year-old boy. 

So the hypothetical which is posed in Ramseyer’s article of a prostitute simply walking away (or “shirking” as he puts it) is one which we might think more about in this context — in order to escape Japanese control one would have to walk across contested and dangerous territory which was dangerous for both supporters and opponents of Japan, and which became an active war zone in spring 1945. Iloilo is also a good example of how far-flung these wartime bases and “comfort stations” truly were.  

The Asian Women’s Fund webpage describes that there were two “comfort stations” in the city of Iloilo. A testimony from Rosa Henson, a young woman on Panay who had joined the anti-Japanese guerrillas, indicates the impunity of Japanese soldiers in abducting and sexually assaulting Filipino women there, and that the presence of Korean and Chinese “comfort women” did not preclude arbitrary sexual slavery.  Her narrative also indicates that she did escape to join the guerrillas for one year, before she was dragged forcibly back into the system. Henson ultimately wrote a memoir and, as this essay notes, she was “a female guerrilla, comfort woman, and women’s activist [who demonstrated] both the diversity and adversity the underground [Filipino] resistance.”  Henson’s story has recently gained greater traction in popular culture in the Philippines and was the subject of “Nana Rosa,” a play focusing on the experiences of Filipino women under Japanese occupation, staged by the Dulaang UP, a university theatre group (pictured below) in Quezon City. 

Ramseyer does not cross-check any well-known testimonies such as Henson’s, nor does he try to build a more geographically-specific sense of environments where the “comfort stations” were operating. So although he cites a document about comfort stations in the Philippines, this aspect of the Filipino experience is not recounted or explained, since it might complicate his working assumption that “comfort stations” across the Japanese empire operated more or less like a brothel would in metropolitan Tokyo.  

Ramseyer follows his source about the Philippines with another document, also supporting the same claim about hygienic attention by the Japanese managers of the military brothels. 

This citation is given as “Shina haken gun. 1942. Showa 17 nen 7 gatsu fukukankai doseki jo iken [Opinions Expressed at the July 1942 Vice Officers Meeting], Oct. 3, 1942, reprinted in Josei (1997, v. 3, 7).” 

Let’s have a look at this document.

Although he supposedly has a strong command of the Japanese language, Ramseyer appears to have got the translation of the document wrong — it’s a summary of meetings from 28-29 September rather than July 1942. In this case, he also fails to note the location in his citation; in fact, this document is about Shanghai.

At that time (September-October 1942) the Japanese military had been in control of the entire city of Shanghai for less than a year. This article indicates that November 1942 would see the mass arrest of foreigners, particularly British, in that city.  

Hygiene is in fact discussed in the document, but so too is the age of the comfort women which is described as “young” in the case of one station, and the number — in one particularly large case, a group of 140 women.  It is also clear that their working area is close to military cars and a weapons depot. 

The title page of the document cited by Ramseyer, seen above, immediately reminds us that the professor has completely left out any Japanese men or specific leaders from this article, even though they are present and accounted for in the very documents he cites. Specifically, the document clearly indicates the knowledge of the high command. In this case, the responsible official is Kawabe Masakazu [河辺正三], the commander of units in North China, the author of the document, who Ramseyer has conveniently failed to mention. 

Who was Kawabe Masakazu? Kawabe was involved in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War (known as the China Incident in Japan, and the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance in China, 1937-1945 in all cases). He was involved in nearly all of the major offensives and battles against both Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces in 1939-1940. He then went on to fight the British in Burma in 1943-44 and returned to Japan, where he organised the Air Force for the final defense of the home islands and Okinawa. 

After the war, in March 1946, Kawabe was interrogated by the Americans — his interrogation focused not on the comfort women system, but instead dealt with Japanese chemical weapons research and wartime chemical attacks on Chinese civilians. (For a summary, see p. 104 of this pdf from the US National Archives). 

What about the recipient of the report? Who was he?

Kawahara Naoichi [川原直一] was the recipient of Kawabe’s report. At the time, Kawahara was stationed in Tokyo as an Army Vice-Commander, following on from a deployment as a military advisor to the Manchukuo puppet government. He went on in the later stages of the war to serve in a high post in the Japanese occupation of Malaya and ended the war as the second-in-command at the surrender ceremony to Mountbatten’s troops at Kuala Lumpur on 13 September, 1945. 

As we learn from Shanghai Normal University historian Su Zhiliang [苏智良], Kawahara had been pushing for more comfort stations in China after June 1939, responding in part to a field report from a Japanese academic that asserted that random rapes by soldiers were harming relations with Chinese civilians. So by late 1942, he was overseeing a system of military brothels which had been in place for over three years. (It is quite probable that Su Zhiliang covers this further in a new 1500+ page body of research he published with other PRC colleagues in January 2020 in Shanghai.)

So what does this background tell us, and why does it matter that Kawahara received the cited document about the comfort women? A long document exists, in English, as part of the Tokyo Trials, which interrogated Kawahara on 25 March 1947 about such orders. Although not specific to the comfort women system it does indicate much about the highly organised and bureaucratic character of the Japanese military bureaucracy, with a subtheme running through the document being Kawahara’s desire to protect his commander Tojo Hideki from being implicated in war crimes.

Would such a long biographical diversion about the Japanese commanders be appropriate in an article about contract law and the economics of prostitution in early 20th century Japan and in Japan’s wartime empire? Perhaps not. 

But listing the authors and the recipients of bureaucratic correspondence tends to be a norm in historical scholarship, and could have been done easily by Ramseyer. It seems he has failed to include the names of the authors of the report since it might raise troublesome questions about Japanese soldiers and military prostitution as discussed by specific military officials in and about 1942 Shanghai.

So we have scratched the surface of just two of the primary documents cited in this piece. Whereas Ramseyer doesn’t give readers even the full citation for each of them, in a brief look at two of the documents and a few hours of undergraduate teaching and online research we have been able to find sources which have given us specific evidence of Japanese sexual assaults and abductions in the Philippines, further indicated that the spring of 1945 was very violent and dangerous in Iloilo. Furthermore, we have found a connection to a major Japanese military figure with ties to a number of incidents in China and whose presence in the documents connects the comfort women issue at last to the legal doctrine of “command responsibility” in the event that sexual slavery is considered a war crime. We also have documented interrogations of one of these individuals by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and further understood the high reach of the comfort women system within the Japanese high command. 

Selected Citations

J. Mark Ramseyer, ‘Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,’ International Review of Law and Economics (December 2020), 1-8.

Andrew Gordon, “Statement by Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert”, Harvard University (18 February 2021), 1-3.

 政府調查「従軍慰安婦」関係資料集成 全5巻 (Tokyo: 龍溪書舎, 1997). 女性のためのアジア平和国民基金[編]

Manickam, S.K, & Iioka, Naoko. (2017). Translation of Japanese Entries in the Bibliography on the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, Singapore and Northern Borneo, 1941-1945.


  1. Physical evidence of comfort women job advertisements and pay slips remains.
    Professor Ramseyer’s claim is grounded.
    South Korea charges former ‘comfort women’ activist with fraud, embezzlement
    In May 2020, Lee Yong-soo held a press conference and he confessed that he was lying at the order of the group.

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